A few months ago my mother asked me to buy her a fish.
“Just a little one,” she said, showing me an inch of space between her thumb and forefinger.
I looked up from the magazine I was reading and wondered where in the world I would find a fish that size. Trader Joe’s? Whole Foods?
“Not to eat, dummy. A live one, for my lily plants outside. I read somewhere that the fish keeps the roots free of algae and parasites.”
I nodded, relieved that I would not have to make a fool of myself at the grocery store, asking the butcher to wrap up one anchovy.
“Sure, I’ll get you a little fish.”
A week or so later, the lily plant was dead but the little fish was thriving. Well, thriving in the only way a small fish is able to, alone in a big porcelain pot, the only view being the one above. Occasionally my mother looked in on him and smiled. As the days wore on however, my mother forgot that he was there. Luckily for him, it rained plenty in the past few months. There wasn’t any danger of him running out of water to swim in.
This morning, nearly three months after I’d brought the little fish home, my mother asked me to buy two more small fish.
“What happened to the first one? Did he die?”
“Oh no,” she said, “He’s fine. We just reconnected.”
She had wanted to use the porcelain pot for an orchid that had grown out of its old pot (my mother is, among many things, a member of the Orchid Society) and before turning the pot over to dump the water out, had noticed a sliver of a shadow. The fish was alive! It swam hurriedly around the pot, visibly disturbed by the sudden shifting and sloshing of its habitat. Where to go? What to do? But my mother is a kind soul – a Buddhist at heart if not by practice – and she immediately replaced the pot and stared intently into the water. The little fish rocked nervously in the water. It seemed even smaller than she’d remembered. Guilt consumed her. She had left the poor little fish in there; forgotten all about him, without even a dying lily plant to feed off! Yet somehow he had survived and still had the energy to swim about.
“Do fish eat?” My mother asked.
I stared at her incredulously.
“Of course they eat!” I was sputtering the way my father does when he tries to explain something utterly obvious. “They eat bugs and stuff.”
I tried to lace my words with as much authority as I could but secretly I marveled at the little fish. How saint-like of him to swim and swim in that dark hole with nothing to eat but the unfortunate gnat or mosquito that fell in. His eyes spoke plaintively: he waited for deliverance. What a merciless existence! What monk-like patience!
“We ought to name that little fish,” I said, “We ought to call him Nelson Mandela.”
“Neslon who? It doesn’t matter. I have to make it up to him. Go out today and buy him some friends.”
“Yes. And perhaps some food. I think he’d like that.”
Little Fish seemed to be in no particular hurry for friends, so I washed my car first before heading out. On the street I drive nearly every day, I spotted a fish store that I had never seen before. “Tropical Fish,” the sign said.
I hoped they would have less exotic specimens as I did not want Little Fish to get a complex. He was just a simple gold feeder fish, but I did not know this at the time. I walked through the door into the dim store, the only lights seem to come from the glowing rows of aquariums. It was uncomfortably warm and I wondered if anyone would come and help me.
“May I help you?” said a voice. A middle aged Chinese man appeared, drying his hands on a small towel. “What are you looking for?”
“I’d like to buy two little fish,” I said, and held up my thumb and forefinger in the same way my mother had done a few months before.
“Little fish?” The man wrinkled his brow and looked back towards an even darker area of the store, from which a woman appeared. She was thin and her faded blouse had a Hawaiian print.
“We have little fish,” she said, “But would you be more specific?”
“Little Fish,” I said, capitalizing the words in my head. “I’m trying to buy some fr- uh, companions for another fish at home.”
The woman seized upon the situation much more swiftly than her husband could, who was still drying his hands in confusion. She could tell that I knew nothing about fish and that I was looking for feeder fish.
“You’re looking for feeder fish.”
She led me to a small tank at near the floor – a million little fish swam about under fluorescent lights. “You only want two?”
“I’m not going to feed them to anything. I just want them to be friends,” I said.
She nodded seriously, though I sensed she thought I didn’t know what I was saying. She bagged the fish and gave me instructions on how not to kill them. Like eggs used for baking, I was to wait until the water was room temperature before adding them to other waters.
“Anything else?” she said.
She reached behind her and grabbed a small plastic jar. “For those fish, this food should be fine.”
The total for the fish and the food was $4.25. Each fish was 39 cents.
“39 cents!” my mother cried, “You should have bought him more friends!”
“Fish don’t need too many friends,” I said.
“Oh they don’t?” my mother said, raising an eyebrow.
“No. Little Fish did just fine for the past two months.”
“Yes,” my mother said, “But it’s terrible to be alone for so long.” She looked at me, “Could you be alone for that long?”
I thought about it even though I really didn’t have to.
“No, I couldn’t.”
“Exactly.” She picked up the bag and looked at the fish. The fish looked back. “Fish need friends just like my daughter needs friends.”